In 1988, dragging 100 meters of cable with side-scan sonar through Lake Champlain looking for Champ, Joseph “Zarr” Zarzynski saw something dark gray breach the surface a third of a mile away.
Up, down, up, down.
“I’ve seen incredible boat wakes, I’ve seen waterfowl, I’ve seen floating logs that you could easily interpret, ‘Oh, that’s the monster,'” said Zarzynski, 67.
This wasn’t that.
“Obviously, it was animate and it was moving in the opposite direction; it wasn’t part of our waves,” he said. “We couldn’t haul up this $50,000 worth of equipment and zoom over there.”
Zarzynski spent nearly 17 years looking for Champ, writing a book on his research. He traveled to Loch Ness nine times looking for that famous lake monster and credits it for helping to inspire his second career as an underwater archaeologist.
The New York man will be in Portland next weekend, a guest speaker at the second annual International Cryptozoology Conference.
Zarzynski said he’s only talked about his lake monster research two or three times in the past 20 years. He’s been all about shipwrecks. Not that he doesn’t see similarities.
“You look at some of these shipwrecks, it’s taken such a long time to find them even with the best equipment,” he said in an interview this week. “You look at hidden animals that are mobile and moving around, and trying to find them, it’s a game of hide and seek. This is the ultimate game of hide and seek looking for mystery animals.”
Zarzynski said his interest in Champ was piqued shortly after moving to Saratoga Springs in 1974 for a teaching job. He’d spotted “Monster Hunt” by Tim Dimsdale in a local college library.
“He was doing work over in Loch Ness,” Zarzynski said. “Somebody saw me reading the book and said, ‘You know, you have something that’s not half a world away in Scotland; it’s in your backyard in Lake Champlain.’ I began doing research on that.”
In the beginning, it was lots of knocking on doors to ask who had seen what.
“My background was in history,” he said. “I looked at it, ‘Let’s start documenting some of these sightings.'”
In 1981, he took up scuba diving to get an underwater look for himself. In the midst of that, he was making trips over to explore Loch Ness, where he also had one sighting, driving the south shore with a friend.
“We saw a large dark hump jut from the shoreline off to the left,” he said. “I immediately changed lanes. I went from being a European driver into being an American driver — fortunately, there was nothing coming my way. I stopped, backed up to try to get that vantage point and we couldn’t see it. It was the very typical dark hump jutting through the loch.”
During one search, Zarzynski said his friend, Martin Klein, found a sunken World War II Wellington Bomber with a side-scan sonar system while scanning Loch Ness for creatures. It turned out to be one of only two examples of that plane in existence, he said, and Zarzynski was on a team that helped raise it years later.
“I became enthralled that there were other mysteries besides animate ones,” he said. “I had to make a decision in the early 1990s: cryptozoology versus underwater archaeology, and I decided to go underwater archaeology. The seeds for that switch came from something associated with the most famous of all lake monsters, the search for the Loch Ness monster.”
Zarzynski went on to have a rich career in wreck exploration that included leading a team that found the 1758 Land Tortoise in the bottom of Lake George in 1990.
When it comes to lake monsters, he still believes something’s out there. Plesiosaurs are his best guess.
The hunt was interesting, he said, but almost more so were the personalities involved, which is what he plans to include in his talk next weekend.
“I think the people that go in search of these enigmatic mystery animals, they’re fascinating,” Zarzynski said. “(They) were inspiring, they were wonderful. Some were eccentric. Some were so far (off) the meter in terms of brilliance, that’s what I find really fascinating.”
Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, unexplained and intriguing in Maine. Send ideas, photos and mysteries of the deep to email@example.com.